Thursday, September 11, 2008

Commentary on a Poem by Stuart Kestenbaum

Ted Kooser, the former US Poet Laureate, has a weekly column where he offers a poem and some brief commentary.  He says, "Stuart Kestenbaum, the author of this week's poem, lost his brother Howard in the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center." 

Prayer for the Dead

 The light snow started late last night and continued all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything that is born: we are here for a moment of a story that is longer than all of us and few of us remember, the wind is blowing out of someplace we don't know, and each moment contains rhythms within rhythms, and if you discover some old piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may not remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it's not you now, not this moment that the synapses fire and your hands move to cover your face in a gesture of grief and remembrance.

The poem is certainly expressive, as it offers some biographical information, and it's the poet speaking as the dead man's brother.  I notice that the poem begins with "I" but the pronouns shift to "we" in the middle and go to "you" at the end.  This progression seems to be an attempt to bring the reader into the situation and the emotional environment of the poem.  I'm thinking there's a kind of Platonic ideal here working in that there's a sense that the essential element of the brother, the "true" or ideal brother is somehow still out there, haunting his dreams, appearing in the wind.  

I don't think the poem has a very strong pragmatic value.  It doesn't tell us some moral truth or tell us how to do things.  Rather, it's an expression of grief and loss, an expressive poem that doesn't draw a lot of attention to its language or form (it doesn't even really have a formal poetic shape).  We're left seeing the speaker having a sudden and powerful memory of his brother and breaking into grief.  

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